Two years ago, Ryan Atkinson wasn’t pitching. He was a patient services manager at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, moving on with post-mound life. Nineteen months later, the right-hander is trying to pull off an improbably fast rocket ride to the Major Leagues. As a non-roster invitee to Major League Spring Training, he has a shot to make the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2018 Opening Day roster.
Go back to the 2015 MLB Draft. 632 pitchers and 579 position players were selected, but of those 1,211 picks, only 11 have already made their Major League debuts. Baseball fans know some of those names: Andrew Benintendi, Alex Bregman, Paul de Jong, Dansby Swanson, and Ian Happ all came from the 2015 draft. There’s even a former General, 2016 Jackson hurler Andrew Moore, in that elite eleven. To ascend quickly, you have to be special, and people usually know it. Those six were chosen in the top four rounds.
Ryan Atkinson, a 2015 graduate of the University of Cincinnati, was not among the 1,211 draftees in 2015. Nor was he one of the 1,214 draft choices in June 2016 (634 of whom were pitchers). He hadn’t thrown a baseball in the twelve months prior to the 2016 draft.
Atkinson signed with Arizona–undrafted in eighty rounds over two years–in 2016. He ranked 13th in Minor League Baseball in strikeouts in 2017.
At six-foot-seven, Jared Miller is decidedly big. And in 2018, the 2017 Jackson General may reach an even greater height: big-league reliever.
After completing a 2017 campaign that featured a 2.93 ERA in 70.2 innings between Jackson and Triple-A Reno, Arizona made the 24-year-old Miller the youngest pitcher on their 40-man roster in November. As a consequence of that early Christmas present, the former Vanderbilt Commodore will get the chance to prove himself worthy of a Major League look in 2018 Spring Training.
“I was at home [in Indianapolis], hanging out. I think the 40-man deadline was around seven o’clock that night,” Miller said of getting the news. “I was expecting to be added, but I didn’t get a call until pretty close to that deadline, so you kind of get anxious and start to wonder if they have different plans or what’s going on. But then I got the call from [Diamondbacks vice president of player development] Mike Bell, and the good news followed that.”
April, The Cruelest Month
Believe it or not, Miller’s 2017 season began at Jackson in choppy seas. His second outing of the year saw him give up three earned runs in one inning of work against Birmingham, as the Generals’ bullpen allowed the Barons to rally from a two-run deficit for the win.
Miller knuckled down for three straight scoreless appearances thereafter, but a nightmarish April 20 outing against Montgomery gave spectators some pause. Who was this imposter, the guy giving up seven earned runs in one third of an inning? Where was the real Jared Miller?
It’s not real until it is. That’s how 2017 Jackson Generals pitcher Brad Keller felt about his Rule 5 Draft selection on Thursday.
“Some people were telling me it might happen, and I didn’t really believe it,” the 22-year-old Keller said. “I thought that would be a pretty cool situation if it did happen, but I didn’t put too much thought into it. My agent kind of downplayed it, saying ‘It’s like, 50-50, we’ll see, it should be interesting.’ And I was like, alright, whatever.”
Sitting at the breakfast table in his Atlanta area home, the six-foot-five right-hander saw a familiar name drafted early: 2017 Generals outfielder Victor Reyes went first overall to the Detroit Tigers. Still, no strong premonitions for Keller.
Believe it or not, the All-Star Break is right around the corner. After wrapping up a series in Chattanooga against the Lookouts, the Generals have just ten more games until the midpoint of the 2017 campaign.
After a quick 19-9 start to the season, the Generals have slowed down some. Going into the finale in Chattanooga Thursday night, the team is just a game above .500 and 3.5 games back in the North Division. The team is still alive for a playoff spot, but they’ll need to make a run quickly.
Even with the team scuffling some, things have been good around the Generals. We were fortunate enough to have both Tony La Russa and Mike Bell in town for the series against Mississippi. La Russa doesn’t need much of an introduction, especially in West Tennessee. He ranks third all-time in managerial wins among MLB skippers, has three World Series Rings and is in the Hall of Fame. He has been in Arizona’s front office since 2014.
La Russa could not have been nicer or more welcoming. I know the coaches and players enjoyed having him around. He took ample time to chat with me in the interview below.
Mike Bell is the Vice President, Player Development for the D-backs. He is in charge of all things minor leagues in the organization. I spoke with him about some of the standout performers for the Generals in the First Half of the season and what we can expect to see as the year goes on.
The 2017 Southern League All-Star Game is Tuesday, June 20 in Pensacola. Six Generals were named to the initial North Division roster earlier this week. Congrats to those guys!
A lot is new for the Generals in 2017. The team is in its first year of a brand new affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks after three years as Seattle’s Double-A affiliate. While the team is coming off a 2016 Southern League Championship, none of the Generals actually played for the team last season.
Something that is the same–at least in the early going–is very good baseball. The Generals opened up the season with four wins out of five versus Birmingham. The team’s starters combined to allow just three earned runs in 26 innings (1.04 ERA), and the offensive numbers are staggering. The Generals lead the Southern League in average (.348), home runs (10), doubles (14), hits (65) and runs (43).
Five games is much too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions, but those numbers are mighty impressive. Every General had at least three hits over the first four games, so it’s not just one or two guys. But there were some truly impressive performances over the weekend.
We saw some prodigious power from Tyler O’Neill last year. I would not want to saddle anyone this early with being compared to the 2016 Southern League MVP, but even O’Neill did not do what Kevin Cron did on Saturday night. Cron hit three home runs in one game, becoming the first General to do so since 2013.
Cron hit a solo blast in the second inning off of top White Sox prospect Michael Kopech. With the team down 7-4 in the eighth inning, he hit another solo shot to bring the Generals within two. He completed the trifecta with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and force extras. Jackson would lose in extras 8-7 despite the heroic effort at the plate.
I got a chance to speak with Kevin about the feat. It was the first time as a pro he had hit three home runs in a game even though he led the Southern League with 26 bombs last year.
That wasn’t it for Cron, either. In his first at-bat on Sunday, the slugger went yard again. It was the fourth time in six at-bats that he homered.
Stewart Ijames and Dawel Lugo each went deep twice, while Colin Walsh and Cron added one apiece. The team scored in each of its first seven trips to the plate. Every General had at least one hit and a run scored, while seven knocked in a run.
Had Birmingham centerfielder Hunter Jones not made a spectacular diving catch to rob Jamie Westbrook of a potential walk-off double Saturday night, the Generals would likely be undefeated. Alas, they’ll settle for 4-1.
The Generals embark on their first road trip of 2017 Wednesday. Fittingly, it will be to Mobile. The BayBears had been Arizona’s Double-A affiliate for the past decade prior to this year. Sixteen of the 27 players to begin the season with the Generals spent time with Mobile last year.
The BayBears are now an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels had been in Little Rock, Arkansas. Now the Arkansas Travelers are home to Seattle’s Double-A club, bringing everything full circle (as the Generals/Diamond Jaxx had been affiliated with the Mariners for the previous ten seasons).
So the series features the only two teams in the circuit to change affiliations this offseason. And Mobile features the only truly new team in the Southern League, as the Angels had been a part of the eight-team Texas League from 2001 to 2016. We all caught up?
Anyways, should be a fun time. Hope you can tune in on Radio Willie in Jackson and online via the TuneIn Radio App. Wednesday’s game gets started at 6:35 pm CT.
Minor League Baseball’s Opening Day is set for next Thursday, April 6th. Before the lights come on, Brandon and I sat down to introduce (or re-introduce) ourselves, chat about the Generals’ new affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and highlight what we enjoy about the early part of the baseball year. Jeff Wiser, a.k.a. @OutfieldGrass24, was our first 2017 guest on the Generally Speaking Podcast, and he brought some color to a lot of the ideas we had about the new affiliation.
No, it’s not the same kind of miracle as the 2016 Jackson Generals, a team that won the Southern League championship one year after finishing tied for last place. But it is a miracle in the sense that misery and emptiness can turn into fulfillment and good will. That self-described miracle’s name? Darryl Strawberry.